Russian poet, literary critic and political dissident Dmitry Bykov speaks at UD

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On Nov. 14, The University of Dallas hosted a lecture by Dmitry Bykov, a Russian author, novelist, poet, literary critic, journalist, professor and political dissident. Dr. Jonathan Sanford, president of UD, explained the benefits of having events like this one on campus. 

Sanford said: “It’s important for students to reflect upon international affairs of state, and not to be caught up in day to day news, necessarily, but to have a widened scope, a horizon of interests that really touch on the heart of how one lives well within political regimes. He was able to enrich reflection upon those kinds of questions.”

Dr. Irina Rodriguez, affiliate assistant professor of modern languages, helped to organize the event. A native Ukrainian herself, Rodriguez has long admired Bykov’s work.

“After the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, as I was extremely aggravated by the support of military actions by many Russian intellectuals, I was very happy to see that Mr. Bykov immediately and strongly condemned the aggression,” she said.

In September 2021, Bykov received an offer from Cornell University to work as a writer in residence. After he arrived in the United States, Rodriguez thought about inviting him to UD to speak. “ I immediately thought that it would be interesting to invite him to UD as a specialist on Russian literature and a vocal dissident,” she said.

Rodriguez credited several offices and departments with strongly supporting the initiative, including the Office of the Constantin Dean, the Office of the Provost, the Office of Personal Career Development, the Braniff Graduate School and the Departments of Modern Languages, History and Politics.

The lecture itself was a profound success, with more people attending than the Art History Auditorium could hold. 

“While I don’t know the exact number of attendees, I heard there were lines of people trying to get to the Art History Auditorium and some of my colleagues were not able to get in,” Rodriguez said. 

Rodriguez reached out to a colleague at the Russian Department of Southern Methodist University and suggested they host a lecture, as well. Bykov spoke there on Nov. 15 and gave a poetry reading the following day, much of which included satire of Putin and his supporters. 

Rodriguez said, “Members of the Dallas Russian community which attended the event were elated and very grateful about the opportunity to meet Mr. Bykov and hear him speak.”

Bykov has been writing and composing since he was 5 or 6 years old, finding the process to come very naturally. His journalistic work has been more a matter of practicality than anything else though.

He said: “As for journalism, a writer should have a second profession, so that he does not depend on the publishing conjuncture, commercial interests and readers’ opinions. The best of such parallel professions are pedagogy and journalism, as, in fact, is used to be established in the States.”

Bykov fled Russia prior to its invasion of Ukraine, having been banned from teaching or appearing on state sponsored television and radio. 

Being familiar with the mechanisms of Russian history, Bykov realized over the last decade that he would have to leave his native country, although he delayed the move for as long as possible. 

“When a Russian person is called to go somewhere, he will delay the first step as long as possible, because he has been deceived many times,” he said. 

One of Bykov’s reasons for leaving had to do with maintaining the quality and integrity of his writing as it had become increasingly difficult for him to write freely. 

He said, “When you are afraid of night calls or surveillance, and even constantly adjust your own writings so that you are not accused of extremism (now in Russia this is a frequently used criminal accusation), this fear kills your literary quality.”

In April 2019, Bykov fell ill on a flight to Ufa, Russia. In 2021, an investigation carried out by Bellingcat indicated that Bykov had been targeted by a Russian poison squad. 

Bykov did note, however, that most of his books after 2005 have been conceived of in Russia and then written in America. 

“Here I do not feel the oppression that is constantly felt in Russia and has become almost a habit. Russia it is good for invention of plots — precisely because of the energy of resistance — but it is necessary to write in Odessa or in America. That’s what I’ve been doing in recent years,” he said. 

Bykov is currently writing a book about Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and thanks to the advent of remote teaching, Bykov has been able to continue to lecture since leaving Russia.

“Teaching is my extremal sports, my rest, my pause in the process of writing, my way of re-thinking and discussing the most interesting things. Students are the best audience because they oppose the serious challenges. People of my age use to discuss their diseases and earnings. Such talks seem rather boring and somehow senile.”

Bykov has found that traveling and teaching helps him to avoid stagnation in his work — as well as expand his boot collection.

“Trips like this are the only way to get energized by changing places, from students and friendly teachers. And I like to add new rarities to my boots collection – about 30 pairs from all continents except Antarctic,” he said.

Despite the consequences, Bykov continues to be a vocal critic of Vladamir Putin’s government in Russia.

“When obvious injustices are committed before your eyes or obvious lies are told, it is better for the psyche and for mental balance to talk about it out loud. Anyway, it’s nice to tell a scoundrel that he’s a scoundrel, and a fool that he’s a fool. Otherwise, their power will become absolute, and what is the joy of living under such power?” he said. 

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